Opinion: The Newseum’s closing is a loss for journalism at a turbulent time
Museum showcases amazing accomplishments of the free press
As much as I’d like to say I’ve been an avid fan of the Newseum for years, I’ve actually only visited a few times. The first time was just two years ago. It was my freshman year, and a group of my floormates decided to go for Museum Day, an annual Smithsonian event during which museums that usually cost money are free. So I tagged along, eager to expand my repertoire of explored museums.
That trip didn’t cement my decision to be a journalist, but it definitely helped. I told people at the time that I wanted to be an investigative reporter, and the museum’s exhibits showed me what that would entail — incredibly hard work, of course, but also the ability to (at the risk of sounding cliche) make a tangible difference. So, earlier this month, when the Newseum officially announced it will be closing at the end of 2019, I was devastated.
We live in a time when press freedoms are under attack, and many people simply don’t know enough about journalism and the work of journalists to really care. Perhaps they’ve been so turned against reporting that they are the ones doing the attacking. People across the political aisle have grown hostile towards the news, and take out their frustrations on even solid, reliable reporting.
Every year since 2002, Reporters Without Borders (an organization dedicated to promoting global media freedom) has released its World Press Freedom Index, which ranks and analyzes press freedom in 180 countries. In 2019, the Index ranked the U.S. No. 48 — not an abysmally low number, but a surprising one considering the First Amendment, which is supposedly dedicated to protecting journalistic freedom.
One notable reason for this, according to the report, is President Trump’s increasing attacks on the media. This has been part of a larger attempt to delegitimize journalism as a whole — by revoking press passes, denying journalists from accessing major events and deeming anything that casts his administration in a negative light as “fake news.” It’s a difficult time to be an American journalist, given that the climate surrounding journalism seems to be growing more and more antagonistic.
On a global scale, only 15 nations received a “good” ranking from the index. A larger number of countries ranked from “problematic” to “very dangerous,” with the U.S. in the “problematic” category. The resentment towards journalism — and the accompanying attacks and censorship of it — is not a uniquely American phenomenon, but a major issue in the founding of the United States was ensuring protection for the free press. So what has happened in this country that changed our attitudes so drastically?
The Newseum reminded us that without a free press, democracy cannot exist. It reminded us that at its core, journalism is meant to work for the public, to protect it from powerful institutions and hold the government accountable for its actions. It reminded us of the work that great journalists have done throughout time in an effort to improve the world we live in. That was why I was so upset when I heard about the upcoming closure: the Newseum reminded me of why I wanted to be a journalist in the first place, why I decided to pursue a degree in an industry so turbulent and stressful. I wanted to become a journalist to highlight the stories that have been forgotten or ignored.
As a college student, I understand why many people may have chosen to forego the Newseum — it’s expensive, and there are a ton of free options literally a block away. I also understand why people are more critical of journalism today. It often fails to cover stories that are important to people, and newsrooms are far from diverse. For an industry that is supposed to give voice to the voiceless, that seems impossible when there are only a few voices at the newsroom table to begin with. These criticisms are all valid, and something the industry needs to critically examine in order to better address its mission. However, I still believe that the core principles of journalism are a standard worth fighting for and protecting.
Information today is easier to access than ever, but so much of that information isn’t coming from reliable places. The journalists that sift through the mess to make sense of it all are ridiculed for doing their jobs. There are undoubtedly major issues within the industry, but that’s why we needed the Newseum. It highlighted the fact that even with all the problems within and outside the newsroom, the core values of journalism are still commendable, even courageous.
The Newseum was hope for journalists and non-journalists alike: hope that a free press can improve things throughout the country, any country around the world, even if it’s just a little bit at a time.
Lauren Patetta is a junior in the School of Communications and an assistant editor for the Opinion section.